An Echo of Scandal

Toxic, intoxicating Tangiers/Tangier (Morocco, 1928 and 1978): Laura Madeleine’s sensory prose tantalizes with the tastes of food, sweets, and atmospheric smells. In An Echo of Scandal, her fourth historical novel, she mixes in another powerful ingredient: spicy, pungent alcoholic beverages concocted for the exotic, sultry, teeming north African city Tangier, Morocco. Fabled, multicultural, and centuries old (and new), it sits “at the edge of the world,” a short ferry to Britain’s Strait of Gibraltar and Spain’s southern Andalusia region.

Map of Morocco by Cacahuate [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Formerly an International Zone (Interzone from 1912 – 1951), the city is “nothing but layers.” It’s “built on stories,” an ideal locale for Madeleine’s trademark of inventing layered stories separated by decades, one historical, one modern-day.

What’s echoing is a secret protected for fifty years the contemporary protagonist – Sam Hackett, wandering American ex-pat – stumbles upon, leading him back to the 1928 Spanish main protagonist, Alejandra del Potro. From “the Tangier of now into the Tangiers of then.”

The two spellings of the city – with or without an s – is intentional. While the Internet says the two are synonymous, the author uses these to distinguish historical periods – Tangiers for the past, Tangier for the present – to tell two stories of two very different characters who “didn’t fit in anywhere else,” until they landed in Tangiers/Tangier.

When we meet Ale and Sam they’re traveling in different worlds. Sam is an author with writer’s block who depleted his funds vagabonding around Europe searching for inspiration for a novel. Tangier is his last hope, or else he’ll have to return home. Ale is a watchful sixteen-year-old without a last name living in an inn that doubles as a brothel in Cordoba, Spain. She has no idea how she got there, either “born there, or at least left soon after,” adopting the inn’s name for her last name, Del Porto. The novel opens when she’s been assisting the cook, Ibrahim, her only friend. Tender of age but old enough to now serve as prey for garish men who take advantage of destitute girls whose survival depends on obliging their desires and those of the inn-keeper/madame, heartless Mama Morales. By page 3, something terrible happens to Ale, sending her fleeing; something she’ll have to keep secret or risk being arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. Already, we’re hooked as her fate feels sealed: she must keep running away from her past, hiding her identity.

By the time Ale reaches Tangiers, her existence is wretched – lurking on the dangerous streets scared and penniless, painfully disguised. She’s been through so much and yet her tale hasn’t really begun.

Fast forward to 1978: Sam purchases a leather writing case at one of the myriad market stalls in the old city (medina) that courses through narrow passageways. Spending precious little monies he needs for rent, he buys it from a friend, Abdelhamid, who pitches the sale as an omen, one writer to another. The case and contents contain clues that propel Sam to dig into a mystery from 1928 – Ale’s time.

The case provides enough evidence for Sam to fantasize the plot of a mystery for his elusive novel, if he can unlock the story of the case, which he imagines involves “drugs and glamour and mistakes.” The clues include the name del Potro, gold initials, and another name the reader will see as somehow linked to Ale. Sam’s imagination may sound as wild as Ale’s Tangiers, but it fits an international city with a dramatic history and one known to have inspired writers.

Sam and the case become inseparable, with serious consequences, more mysteries, and lots of twists and turns. As Ale’s and Sam’s stories unwind, they parallel each other. The reader itches for these to converge, which they do, as the novelist has done before. When they intersect, two timeframes feel like they’re happening at the same time.

You will not tire of the author’s separated-in-time intersecting style. She’s a pro at keeping the suspense going and going, along with complicated romances. In this novel, romantic tension echoes unusually.

Another familiar element are characters that are cooks and bakers of sweet things and life-saving bread. This time Ale fakes her way into being a real cook. Most of her chapters are introduced by an alluring, potent alcoholic recipe befitting the city’s seductive setting and legendary history.

The author once baked cakes from recipes she created for a UK blog she also wrote for, Domestic Sluttery. Did she create the alcoholic concoctions foretelling Ale’s world? (For the novel’s launch, she enlisted an award-winning bartender to create a “unique cocktail”.) Drink names offer hints about scenes and moods.

For instance, Ale’s story begins with Blood and Sand, so strong you “break out in a sweat . . . an experience rarely repeated.” Indeed, it’s one Ale prays she’ll never repeat. For her next chapter (the two storylines go back and forth in time) Have a Heart is the drink because it draws from critical life lessons Ifrahim taught her: being a cook cast a “kind of magic” – “stove spirit” for the “power and control that came with feeding people.” Advice Ale took to heart when she made her way into Tangiers, allowing her (at great peril) to “carve a space for myself in a world that didn’t want me.”

An Echo of Scandal sets its sights on new territory for Madeleine, whose first three novels are set in France. For those who don’t know about the intercontinental history of Tangiers/Tangier, the commingling of Arabic with French, Spanish, and English, it’s a fascinating read.

Tangiers is where Ale’s destiny is set in stone at a covered-up villa in the oldest part of the city, the Casbah. On the author’s blog, we’re told the inspiration for this hidden enclave was Dar Zero. In the late 1600s, the residence was owned by Britain’s Samuel Pepys (best known for his diaries), when the city was occupied by the British. Last year, the home was featured in Architectural Digest, where the 100th birthday of a famous French designer, Charles Sevigny, was celebrated on the rooftop of the estate overlooking the bluest of seas.

Ale ends up at its fictional version, named Del Portuno, owned by a rather mysterious, charismatic British fellow, Arthur Langham. You’ll be guessing who Arthur really is until the end. Another character, then, whose identity is concealed. His wealth and frequent disappearances are shadowy, constantly hosting lavish garden parties for questionable guests who overindulge in food, drinking, and smoking of kif in a sebsi pipe. What’s really going on here beneath the smoke and mirrors?

Ale’s recipes/chapters are “not for the faint of heart.” Like the drinks Twin Six, “smooth, and very deceptive”; None but the Brave with “bitter allure”; and the Epilogue’s Last Word, which aims to “cleanse the palate, when the day is done.”

Ale’s and Arthur’s story is not just one of danger. For a time, it was filled with the smells of “ancient rose petals,” “honey-slow heat,” when Ale’s world “was as soft as cinnamon.” At her happiest, she “wanted to drink the light. It would taste of pomegranates and cold butter, strawberries wet with dew and honey dripped from a comb.” There’s a lovely, sensual rhythm to the prose.

Roses and cinnamon are fragile. Ale’s extraordinary life is an emotional roller-coaster, since “identity can be a slippery thing.”


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The Dutch House

The unbreakable bond between two siblings arising from a broken house (Elkins Park, Pennsylvania dominates, 1946 – 80s): Admired, award-winning, bestselling author and co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Ann Patchett, is a household name to millions. Whenever she comes out with a new book, the literary world is abuzz. Her eighth novel, The Dutch House, is no exception.

Patchett was singled out in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012 for her “wisdom, generosity and courage” and “moral code”. All on full display in her new novel, in its heart-to-heart, astute prose and principled, selfless central character, Maeve.

At ten, Maeve mothered her three-year-old brother Danny, and never stopped. Their mother abandoned them, without a word. Trauma worsened by an extraordinarily self-centered, apathetic father, absent even when he was present at the dutch house, named for its prior owners, a Dutch couple, the VanHoebeeks.

The grandiose mansion stuck out like a sore thumb in an everyday suburban neighborhood outside of Philadelphia, more “Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania.” A see-through design – glass entranceway at the front and back – let’s us imagine how anxious, discomforted, exposed one might feel in a house like that – precisely intended. Sister and brother spent their formative childhood years there, until they moved out, Maeve first, then Danny.

Initially you may be unsure whose penetrating image is featured on the cover. That’s because inside the opulent entrance hall hang two portraits of the former occupants painted in the same artistic style as the cover. “Rendered with Dutch exactitude and a distinctly Dutch understanding of light,” we think perhaps it’s their daughter? Whoever it is, the arresting image feels iconic, reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Age. You’ll soon figure out the image is Maeve, making it one of the best covers for a novel for what it reveals and portends.

Inside, the paintings creepily hover over the first floor. In fact, all the former belongings hadn’t been cleared out, the couple died leaving everything behind. But why not remove strangers’ things, personalize the house, make it your own home? Palatial marble and fancy chandeliers will never transform this house into a home.

Maeve is on the cover since she looms large in Danny’s eyes. He’s our storyteller, the sibling who keeps revisiting and questioning the veracity of his early childhood memories growing up in that “depressing enterprise.” His narration, the author’s literary weapon, is chronicling the siblings’ life in clear, flowing, realistic, down-to-earth recounting. In stark contrast to the pretentious, shrouded estate.

“Mothers were the measure of security,” Danny says, as he goes back and forth in time with Maeve about his recollections, questioning whether anyone can be objective about their past. Especially with a father who “didn’t tell us anything,” who matter-of-factly managed to inform them their mother went to India, but that’s all. Didn’t give a hoot how alarming a mother’s disappearance would be, or how that impacted them when she never returned.

Danny’s narrations feel like natural, intimate conversations he’s having with us – in Maeve’s car. Parked across the street from that oppressive house, this setting becomes a ritual, as they return to it over and over again through the decades, rehashing, dissecting perceptions of the origins of their disquietude. An obsession that plays out through various stages of life: coming-of-age, college, career and marriage choices, into mid-life. Relayed when they’re both outsiders, even when Danny lives in New York. It’s Maeve who doesn’t alter her geographical world much.

The magnetic strength of the novel is found in Danny’s poignant, bewildered, regretful, relatable conversations; in lengthy, sweeping paragraphs, sometimes running more than a page. Chapters longer than we typically read that swallow us up the way life does.

Maeve’s cover painting marks a major turning point in the siblings’ lives – when their mother deserted them. Like art lovers and critics who analyze an artist’s intentions, we do the same with Maeve’s image as the siblings and novel develop, as Danny gains deeper insight and so do we. When we examine Maeve’s blue eyes, we see how watery they are, on the verge of crying. We observe how awkwardly her hands are resting. How painfully sad she appears. This is what it looks like when a child’s world is frozen. Why the siblings clung to each other, and never let go.

Danny is devoted to Maeve above anyone else, and she to him, to both of their detriments. Loyalty is an overriding theme, carried to extremes. The two show us how far people can go to protect someone they love more than themselves.

Three household staff did watch over them – a housekeeper, cook, and another housemaid who came before them. They loved them as best they could, but there’s no substitute for a mother, or a substitute mother whose blood runs through yours.

The novel opens after WWII, when Danny, eight, is reading in fifteen-year-old Maeve’s upstairs bedroom on a window seat hidden behind drapes. Sandy, the housekeeper, disturbs the peace announcing their father beckons Danny (not Maeve) downstairs to meet a friend of his, Andrea, an early sign of the unraveling, noting their father “didn’t have friends.” By page six, Danny tells us the two married, though that earth-shattering event didn’t happen until later, slowly burning through Danny’s alternating-in-time recollections of a future, wicked stepmother who “lingered like a virus.”

To emphasize how lost sister and brother were Patchett doesn’t even reveal the father’s name until page 96. Emotionally detached from them, and later to his young stepdaughters, Norma and Bright. A tumultuous, dysfunctional, blended family that never blends.

Considered a companion to the author’s previous novel, Commonwealth, also about complicated family relationships arising from divorces and intermarriages, the author is wonderfully forthright as she is in her books (see interview), confiding this is familiar personal territory. She then surprises by saying writing, rewriting the novel felt “like burning a cake.” Yet nothing feels wasted as the prose is so assured and humanly plotted we feel we know Danny and Maeve, or someone like them, if only we were privy to their inner thoughts and emotions over decades like Danny candidly shares.

Maeve, like the Time quote, marches to her own moral compass. Danny laments she didn’t use her math-whiz skills to her potential, having failed to encourage her to do so. Instead, she settled for an uncomplicated life, saving her valiant strength (her health compromised by diabetes) to always be there for Danny. Maeve’s self-worth is wrapped up in feeling “indispensable” to Danny, and to a kind, empathetic employer. Can you blame her?

Maeve, though, is relentless at pushing Danny; he, like a dutiful son, abides by her wishes against his own. As hard as it is for a parent to let go, it’s equally hard for that dependent child too, even when they have their own family. That havoc is here too.

Politics is also very much alive, depicting the damage an exclusive fixation on wealth inflicts. The much-disliked father only cares about growing his real-estate business, and grooming Danny to takeover. Otherwise, he’s abnormally disinterested, insensitive, empty. (Distasteful Andrea focused on her own cunning motives.) It’s no coincidence the father’s profession and financial ambitions echo loudly, as “everything feels political to me these day,” says Patchett in another interview. Sending a resounding message about the true costs of wealth sought at any cost.

Tragically, Danny has been consumed trying to solve the mystery of his mother, and yet, in one particularly eye-opening revelation, realizes he’s also spent “every minute of his life” worrying about Maeve, his heroine.

Heroines are meant to inspire us and can break our hearts. That’s what Ann Patchett pulls off. Time and time again.


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This Tender Land

The Vagabonds – how four orphaned children survive inhumane treatment at an Indian Boarding School during the Depression: (Minnesota, 1932): “Does anyone ever get used to having their heart broken?”

That’s one of the many piercing questions gifted storyteller Odie O’Banion asks in his eighties as he looks back on four “soul-crushing” years he endured at an Indian boarding school in Lincoln, Minnesota, along with his older protective brother, Albert, and two other orphans they befriended – Mose, member of the Dakota Sioux tribal nation, and Emmy, an adorable little girl – and what happens to them afterwards in one life-changing summer in 1932. Odie’s recollections are vivid, because “everything that’s been done to us we carry forever.”

Odie’s tales are spun in gorgeous, lyrical, heart-wrenching, spiritual prose that seems destined to live on for the ages. William Kent Krueger cites as his literary inspirers great classical writers like John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway, which may partly explain why This Tender Land has “the feel of a classic” (quoted from the back cover). Odie’s storytelling brims with heart and soul.

Photo by Tony Fischer on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

In a heartfelt letter to readers, Krueger says “in asking you to read This Tender Land, I am, in a way, offering you my heart.” He ends with “I’ve poured the best of myself into this story” – and it shows in this follow-up to his acclaimed, first stand-alone novel Ordinary Grace, also set in Minnesota, where the author lives. (Krueger is the author of a seventeen-book mystery series featuring Cork O’Connor.) His 2013 novel takes place thirty years after this tender tale set during Herbert Hoover’s Presidency, blamed for the Great Depression. In fact, the Herbert Hoover song made famous in the musical Annie, as well as the shantytown name Hooverville, appear in the novel. Emmy’s depiction is in the image of Little Orphan Annie.

To get a feel for the mood of the novel you may want to listen to Shenandoah, a melancholy folk ballad, Odie’s favorite song, he plays on his can’t-live-without harmonica, his “hobo harp.” Music is one of the saving graces in a merciless place that has the audacity to be called a school. The lyrics foretell what’s up ahead for the children:

Each of the four orphans brings a special quality to the group, which becomes the family they’ve all lost and yearn for:

Albert is deft at all things mechanical and technical, which comes in mighty handy.

Odie is the risk-taker who does things no one else would dare to do.

Mosie is the most victimized as he’s the only American Indian of the foursome, symbolizing the long and ruthless history toward the Dakota tribe in Minnesota. He arrived at the military/prison-like/forced labor camp school without a name, a family, and unable to speak. The brothers’ mother was deaf, so they knew sign language, giving Mose a way to communicate since no one at the school could talk with him. A form of isolation and trauma. As the hardest and most upbeat worker, his storyline is even more heartbreaking. “There was something poetic in his soul,” says wise and eloquent Odie. “When I played and he signed, his hands danced gracefully in the air and those unspoken words took on a delicate weight and a kind of beauty I thought no voice could have possibly given them.”

Emmy beloved by all, soothes them all.

The four form a bond early on when they worked together at an apple orchard on a farm that had fallen on tough times, indicative of the hard hit Midwestern farmers during the Depression. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone suffering more than these four abused children, subjected to the wrath of the school’s superintendent, Mrs. Brickman. Nicknamed the Black Witch on account of her “black little heart,” she’s cruel and vengeful like a prison guard. Forever sending Odie, eight when the novel opens, for detention to a “quiet room,” a euphemism for “solitary confinement” as the terrifying cell he spent so many days alone in was a prison cell as the school was formerly a military base, Fort Sibley. A lot of history is embedded in the prose.

Good-hearts at the school were the exception. Besides the empathy these children have for each other, they had two compassionate teachers: Herman Volz, an older German immigrant, a gentle giant of a man, who taught carpentry. Like a “godfather,” his portrayal represents the large numbers of Germans who settled in Minnesota.

The other “precious gem” teacher is Mrs. Frost, who taught domestic skills to the girls. But they too were sentenced to hard labor cleaning cement, while the boys were treated like slaves by a heartless farmer, his farm on the school grounds.

If you’re unable to recall learning about the shameful history of Indian boarding schools aimed at wiping out American Indian culture, a form of genocide, that’s because it was wiped out of history books.

What happened to American Indian children nearly a century ago is not just old history, but another gut-punching point in American history that’s happening today on our southern borders, where migrant children are being held in prison-like cages.

Minnesota is located in a part of the country known as Tornado Alley. Frequent tornadoes devastate, another reminder of present-day – climate change. Combining tornadoes with tornadic, traumatizing school years, Part I is justly titled God is a Tornado.

Part II takes place four years later when Albert is sixteen, Odie twelve, Emmy six, and Mose’s age unknown but his spirit is ageless. This is when the adventure story begins. A freeing, roller-coaster time, when there’s a sense of hope mixed with hopelessness. Ever mindful of spoilers, the rest is left for the reader to discover.

Albert is an ethical young man, whereas Odie says he was not, yet he’s not afraid to rail against injustices, since “the only way to stand up against evil in this land, is to stand together.” Similarly, he says, “we are creatures of spirit . . . this spirit runs through us and can be passed to one another.” Indeed, a spiritual outlook winds through this hard-knocks novel, reinforced when a traveling band of healing evangelicals, a “revival tent show,” rekindles faith. Whether you agree with what the revivalists preached or not, they gave people that thing called Hope. Part III, then, is also spiritually titled, High Heaven.

Again no spoilers about Part IV, The Odyssey, and Part V, The Flats.

Odie is treated like “vermin,” very disturbing language that’s also timely as the President has referred to people of color and the less fortunate as “infestations.”

Odie’s stories heartily express grief, sadness, desperation, losses, but also a deep love for the grace of good, decent people and the land. Even in his elderly years, he speaks of a sycamore tree as a “thing of such beauty.”

In an Author’s Note, Krueger tells us he grew up listening to his “father’s stories about the Dust Bowl Years,” apparently the origin of wrapping his heart in the hearts of his characters, whose voices memorialize 250,000 homeless teenagers in 1932 he refers to.

The author is also after our hearts, 464 pages worth. Sixty-four chapters filled with such beautiful prose the pages fly.

Odie met another good soul who tries to comfort him saying the “heart is a rubber ball. No matter how hard it’s crushed, it bounces back.” But as Odie tells it, the heart never forgets.


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The Giver of Stars

Five remarkable horseback-riding women transport us to Depression-era Appalachia – inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s WPA Pack Horse Library Project (Baileyville, Eastern Kentucky 1937): When the author of 38 million books sold, including the hugely popular Me Before You trilogy, acknowledges at the end of her 11th novel that “more than anything I’ve written . . . The Giver of Stars “made writing an unusual joy,” believe her, because it’s a joy to read.

And it’s “good for the soul” like reading – the mission of five heroic women carrying out Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambitious goal of delivering, by horseback, books, magazines, and comics to uneducated, wary of strangers, isolated mountain families in extreme poverty (shacks and cabins insulated with newspapers), scattered miles within the beautiful yet daunting Cumberland Mountains of Appalachian Kentucky, to provide them a new deal under FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Stars who risked their lives to make a difference. And they did, but wouldn’t have if not for the friendships forged.

Book carriers in Hindman, Kentucky
Works Projects Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While the historical times were not joyous, gutsy characters depict qualities to celebrate: persistence, resilience, courage, loyalty, compassion. Joyous too how much reading matters for the downtrodden.

The Giver of Stars hits the right notes on big, important themes: understanding mountain people as victims of circumstances – economics, illiteracy, domestic abuse, sexism, alcoholism, long-held feuds. Others egregiously affected by power, money, and the dangers of coal-mining, with little hope of earning an income except for local farming and selling home-made, illegal, and potent liquor, moonshine. Contrary to stereotypes of Appalachia as white, coal-miners were also black, so racism also reveals its injustices.

Moyes invents a town, Baileyville, but it feels as if it exists. “For people who lived so deeply in nature . . . they seemed oblivious to the idea of respecting it.” Coal mining’s impact – devastation to the land, health hazards, displacement of families, and efforts to squash unionizers championing workers rights– provides an environmental and economic message as relevant today as seventy-years ago.

This, then, is an emotionally, culturally, financially, and ethically moving tale that humanizes plights of survival of poor people living in small, remote towns, the greedy men who suppressed them, and the brave souls who served them, advocating for human rights, humaneness.

Moyes creates five different women, with different struggles and fears, to represent the different themes. Each has lost so much too, but by coming together for a meaningful cause they “shine through the gloom.”

It’s a pleasure to introduce them:

Alice: The protagonist. Like the author, from England. Unlike Moyes, who still lives there, Alice leaves, rashly marrying a handsome man she barely knew, Bennett Van Cleve – her ticket out of Surrey, UK, away from her rejecting family where she can’t seem to do anything right in their upper-class eyes. Elegant, Alice’s sadness and loneliness will tug at your heart. Sadly, she plunges deeper into misery, when she finds herself in a loveless marriage in Appalachian Kentucky, a shocking “cultural shift,” living under the same roof as father Van Cleve, a repugnant man and despicable boss of the Hoffman Mining Company. Rich but his house is silent and repressive, surrounded by the ghosts of a deceased wife and mother. Made even more unbearable when Alice realizes she married a shadow of a man.

A terrible incident in that terrible house is another shock to her system, compelling Alice to defiantly escape, by volunteering for the library project. This time she finds companionship and “liberation” with the women and a devoted animal aptly named Spirit: a mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. We so want Alice to be happy, a testament to how emotionally relatable and tenderly developed the author has created her.

Moyes understands what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, saying in an interview that’s how she felt writing about Kentucky and its mountain people. So she visited the region three times over the course of two years while writing the novel, riding the same mountain trails the women rode, staying in a mountain cabin, and talking to the people to hear their stories and rhythmic language, which she infused in her evocative prose.

Margery: Alice’s fearless role-model. At thirty-eight, she’s tough-as-nails, having lived in the holler all her life. She knows the land and its people, and like all small towns where everyone knows everyone’s business, the “misfortunes of families,” they know hers. Margery is fiercely independent, learned to save herself her life must be unencumbered, which sets up one of the two romantic tensions winding through the plot. (The other romance is sweet Alice’s.) The author is an award-winning romance novelist, so she excels at poignantly developing affairs of the heart.

Margery takes Alice under her wings when the fledgling book project begins. Also encourages the other women to stand up for themselves. Until another tragic event beats her down.

Izzy: Her marvelous turnaround makes you feel like singing out, like she does in her angelic singing voice, accomplishing something more powerful than the sound of her music. Another outsider, because of a leg disability from polio. Her mother, who oversees the WPA project, forced her to ride into the mountains when she couldn’t even mount a horse. Alice comes up with an idea to accommodate that, boosting Izzy’s self-worth.

Sophia: Symbolizes the racist times. She lives in a segregated area in the worst spot in the valley. Came home from Louisville where she was a real librarian for eight years in a segregated library – sanctioned by a 1933 law (an assault on libraries as great equalizers) – to care for her brother William, who lost his leg in a mining accident, the mine owned by elder Van Cleve. When the library takes off, she’s called upon to organize and mend books. You’ll love how everyone comes to depend on her, how much strength she has.

Beth: Least known, for a good reason. She’s so busy tending to her farming responsibilities and her substitute motherly role for her brothers, she’s not around as much as the others.

Two good-hearted men of integrity buoy these heroic women, heroes too:

Sven: Margery’s lover for the past ten years. Beloved by all, he’s one of the miners. And the one who keeps asking Margery to marry him.

Fred: “A veritable saint.” Offered his barn to house the books where the characters gather. There’s warmth in that makeshift library, but his old-fashioned manners and protectiveness of Alice warms even more. He also watches over Sophia, sensitive to vulnerabilities. We see how deeply he cares for Alice before she does, since she’s married, he off limits. Their budding relationship is an endearing conflict between heart versus head.

Much more is packed into this nearly 400-page novel. Sentimental scenes of Alice softening bitter mountain men and grieving mountain women to allow her into their houses to bring reading material and read to their children, in stark contrast to dramatic scenes of lawlessness, hopelessness.

Moyes’ nimble prose flows from fine, reserved proper English to Appalachian dialect and poor grammar, to the outspokenness of unconventional women, to the distrust of strangers, and the angry lashing out loosened by drunkenness.

“There’s always a way out of a situation,” says Margery to Alice. It’s telling this conversation was chosen for the back cover. Whether that advice comes to fruition for those in deep trouble and pain is why this starred novel will sell many more millions of Jojo Moyes’ books.


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Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland

For the love of Icelandic Horses (2004 – 2015 Thingeyrar Iceland, except ‘06, ‘08, ‘12 Connecticut; Epilogue, 2016 Iceland): Once you see a picture of an Icelandic Horse like the author did while daydreaming at her desk job, you understand why she fell madly in love with these precious, unique animals. But don’t let their small size and adorable looks deceive you. “All the horses get wilder here, their blood filled with the wind and the waves of the Arctic waters.”

Icelandic Horse via MaxPixel

Even if you’re an equestrian, how many of us would become so “obsessed” about riding an Icelandic horse in surreal, subarctic Iceland to go to great lengths to actually ride them there? Especially when apparently there are places to ride Icelandic horses in the US, including one in the Berkshires of Massachusetts not too far from the author’s home outside New Haven, Connecticut, where she works at Yale University editing a journal.

That Icelandic horse farm triggered the author’s “Icelandophilia.” The two experiences cannot compare by any stretch of our imagination. And this gorgeous memoir lets your imagination run free, as it did for the author.

Fifteen years ago, Tory Bilski took her first magical trip with a core group of women her age (middle-aged, one older) to temporarily escape the realities of daily life. Back then, not many people were even traveling to Iceland on Icelandair – the only international airline that flies into the country. Landing in Keflavík (not Reykjavik, the capital), the view is bleak, Mars-like. Today, Iceland is a hot destination, but if you only know it as a stopover to Europe or elsewhere, you cannot imagine that the closer you get to the Arctic Sea overlooking Greenland, it’s fantastical, fairy-tale lands. An ancient, mystical Norse country steeped in folklore and myths, inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasies.

Bilski’s adventures come across as mythical: a “horse-lover’s dream” amidst a verdant landscape, “mesmerizing blue fjord,” volcanic sands. This is not only a unique place, but Icelandic horses are a unique breed “that’s remained isolated on this island for over a thousand years.” A breed that’s part “Norwegian Fjord horse, the Shetland Pony, the Irish Connemara, and the Fell and Dales Ponies of Yorkshire.” Interestingly, a bit of the Mongolian horse too, the subject of another memoir reviewed here.

There’s something about horses and their relationship to mankind that’s enchanted, almost spiritual. And those who write memoirs about that profound connection infuse their passion into their prose. “You seek in horses what you can’t get in humans.”

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun is escapist fiction crafted in literary prose.

Remarkable how Bilski fell into something beyond her wildest dreams, recognized that, and made it into an annual tradition for more than a decade, except for a few years when family and personal health prevented her from doing so. The euphoria lasted all year, as best as life lets it, until another late June when she set off again. There’s the summer sun in the title but there’s also cold, windy, driving rains, weather that dramatically changes throughout the day.

These life-enriching experiences confirm the cliché about being in the right place at the right time. Bilksi had gone to that Berkshires Icelandic horse farm, where she met Evie and Sylvie. Evie owned the farm with her husband Jack; Sylvie started riding there after retiring at 59. Already, you have a sense these women are hardy souls with big dreams. Helga was Sylvie’s friend in Iceland, who owned a magical horse farm where she bred and trained these beloved horses. The property included a heavenly guesthouse that was not a B&B, but she graciously and generously let Sylvie stay there, along with some of her friends, year after year for many years. That’s how Sylvie, leader and organizer, Evie, the author, along with another of Sylvie’s friends, Viv, and dear Helga, became a small cadre of women the author bonded with. Friendships that made it all possible, doable, incomparable.

Each year, Sylvie invites other women and teenagers to join her; some returned, many not. Sometimes there were nine or more, other times down to the essential four. Some were problematic as they were dealing with significant issues, which is why compassionate Sylvie invited them in the first place. She wholeheartedly believes, as many do, “horses have a way of healing.”

Besides the magical horses and Iceland, these female friendships at a later stage in life should be factored in. Women value friendships in general; in the author’s case, she describes herself as someone whose life revolved around her husband and three children, and someone who did not make friends naturally. So when she does, she’s grateful for them. And when she looks back, as she does in her memoir, she’s nostalgic for what they had. All along worried, how long can fantastic last?

Icelanders are another draw: easy-going, serene, tolerant people. “After all,” the author says, “this is a country that hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev summit; this is a country where people can make peace and disarm nuclear escalations.” She finds even the language restorative, a “lullaby language with nursery-tale tonality.”

You can think of a lot of adjectives to describe Icelandic horses, but the one that doesn’t fit is they’re easy to ride. Their pony-ish size and shaggy looks belie how highly energetic they are when released into their spirited landscape.

Also challenging is these horses have five gaits, atypical. The author hadn’t ridden much since her younger “horse-crazy years” until she turned forty, when horses became intoxicating again. If this was a mid-life crisis, it’s the kind that creates a second life. One that took her husband time to adjust to, time to understand how much Icelandic horses in Iceland meant to her.

The author was forty-six when these adventures took off. The oldest woman was Sylvie at sixty-six. She hardly knew Sylvie and her friend Eve, the rest were strangers.

Helga’s “state-of-the-art” horse farm in Thingeyrar is at the center. It’s about five hours from the airport, but in 2004 the journey lasted frustratingly longer without a GPS app on a cellphone. Neither existed back then.

What drives our fascination with something? Someplace? the author asks. To be addicted to this spectacular breed in a spectacular setting is one thing, but if you want to ride them you’ve got to master their “complicated” gaits. That’s why the author names her chapters – long but broken into short sections – after their five gaits, ranging in speed and number of beats.

The fifth gait is the one to beat. Also called the Flying Pace, it’s the one we can picture vividly: when all the horse’s legs are suspended in air, “giving it the feeling of flying.” No wonder the author felt “wildly free,” wildly flying in a “wild, moody place,” wildly unconventional compared to her life back home.

The author explains how important it is to get to know each horse’s personalities, moods, abilities. Equally important is how horses are affected by their rider’s competence, confidence, moods. Made more difficult as the years pass, as the women grow older and are not as willing to take risks. “Horses are a mirror. You can’t lie to a horse.”

Sixteen pages of beautiful color photos the author took add to our appreciating, like the author does, “the aching beauty of the universe.” The memoir then is a very timely, important tribute to an Arctic Shangri-La crying out for the urgency of global actions to protect our planet in crisis.


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